- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

With public school test scores on the rise nationwide under Republican governors like George W. Bush in Texas, Democrats have been scrambling to find an effective political counterattack.

The latest strategy calls for criticizing the tests as biased.

U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, have introduced bills in Washington that would prohibit school systems or schools receiving federal funds essentially every school from promoting or graduating students based solely on standardized tests.

Critics like Mr. Scott and Mr. Wellstone say the back-to-basics tests are unfair and undermine the learning process.

But supporters of educational reform, like former Virginia Gov. George F. Allen, locked in a tough race for the U.S. Senate with incumbent Democrat Charles S. Robb, say standardized tests have paid big dividends in U.S. schools.

"Clearly my view is that I have high expectations for children, and you do have to measure how students are doing," Mr. Allen told The Washington Times.

Like Mr. Bush in Texas, Mr. Allen pushed hard for standardized testing in Virginia. While governor from 1993 to 1998, he turned the state's Standards of Learning from a list of general topics into a nationally emulated set of knowledge students must acquire. He also supported a program of testing to make sure students mastered the concepts before they graduated.

The fact that Republicans like Mr. Allen and Mr. Bush are running on education as an issue should be a wake-up call to Democrats in Virginia and elsewhere, said Paul Goldman, a former state Democratic Party chairman and adviser to former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

He called education the old "go-to" for Democrats, and wondered, "If you can't beat a Republican on the education issue, how can you beat him?"

"If Democrats were down in the fourth quarter, Knute Rockne would look down the bench, point to education and say, 'Get in there,' " Mr. Goldman said. "Now Democrats are looking down the bench, and it's not there."

He said some Democrats are attacking education reforms and standardized tests as "Trojan horses by people who want to gut public education."

Mr. Robb has said he supports standards, but said the tests alone are not the solution to the country's education woes.

"Obviously I support standards and accountability, but it ought to be accompanied by investment in education," Mr. Robb said.

Earlier this month he called Mr. Allen's tax-credit program just another back door for vouchers for private schools, even though the money couldn't be used for private school tuition.

Mr. Robb, a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, told The Times he thinks the race will focus on what he believes are the big national issues, like foreign affairs and general education spending.

But political observers like Karen Hartke, project director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based organization, predict the movement to standardized testing could be political dynamite.

In states like Texas, where students who fail the tests are held back, some parents are beginning to oppose the standards, especially if passing is a requirement for graduation.

"We expect this small movement to steadily grow as more and more people come face to face with the tests," she said.

Forty-nine states all but Iowa have enacted or are moving toward some form of testing for a basic set of standards, said John F. "Jack" Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy.

In Virginia, students soon will have to pass six of 11 tests on the state's Standards of Learning (SOL) before receiving their diplomas, a requirement already under fire in some quarters.

Virginia's largest teachers organization, the Virginia Education Association, opposes the tests being a requirement for promotion because some students test poorly, especially on written examinations.

"We'd prefer to have multiple means when you do that you take the pressure off 'nothing but the test,' " said VEA President Cheri P. James. Her organization is backing Mr. Robb in the Senate race.

But while some Virginia Democrats are criticizing the tests, others are looking for a way to address the concerns while retaining a system of accountability.

Mark Warner, the likely Democratic Party nominee for governor in 2001, serves on a panel tasked with evaluating and suggesting tweaks to the standards and testing.

"If there is a problem with the tests, we ought to fix the tests, not give up on standards of accountability," Mr. Warner said after attending a gathering of Communities in Schools officials in Alexandria. Va., last week. He and Mr. Allen are co-chairmen of the Virginia chapter of the effort, which promotes the idea that every student can learn if given the right help.

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